[Tweeters] vBird: Birding beyond the crowds...

Matt Bartels mattxyz at earthlink.net
Fri Apr 1 05:10:28 PDT 2022

For years now, eBird has been revolutionizing birding. The work of the Cornell Lab to provide a centralized location for birders to collect and report their sightings has changed the way birders approach their passion. In the process, they’ve built up a database of bird status and distribution that is unmatched.

But it hasn’t solved everything.

In fact, some of the biggest controversies in the birding community have not been addressed by eBird.

Until now.

“The birding community is somewhat unique in the level of in-group critique it brings to an otherwise peaceful activity” says noted sociologist John Retter. “Birders love to tell each other how they are doing it wrong, or even how their practice is actively harming the world. Many non-birders hold a quaint image of birders as a group of peaceful, if dowdy, nature-lovers. The reality once you study the community, is that in-group critique is constant.” According to Retter, among other things, birders regularly call out other birders for driving too much, for ‘chasing’ rarities, for reporting dubious sightings, for disturbing other people, for harming birds by feeding them, and for being too competitive. “What is remarkable in this community is how rarely the criticism turns inward - in effect, you have a community characterized by a group where each individual is sure they are virtuous while many others in the group are doing it wrong.”

Enter eBird, with its newest venture aimed at solving all these problems: vBird: Birding the Metaverse.

Beginning today, eBird released their first version of “vBird” a virtual reality massive multiplayer online birding app. vBirders, with the purchase of a custom eBird VR headset, can now bird anywhere in the world without leaving home. Much as Pokemon Go! brought a digital game into nature, vBird will bring birding into the metaverse.

How will another game solve the birding community’s problems? eBird is bullish. Once birding moves online, most of the community’s problems will vanish in a flash: Concerned that others are driving too much to chase birds? Problem solved - all the travel will now be virtual. Concerned about ’stringers’ – birders with a rep for fake reports of birds not actually present? The Metaverse knows which birds are present [using eBird’s amazing dataset] and will be able to instantly verify all sighting claims. Annoyed by crowds, playback, or noise? Because the same ‘location’ can exist in parallel “multiverses”, you now have the option to control which other birders [and how many] are present when you chase that rarity. No real-life birds, neighbors, parks, or roadside shoulders will be impacted.

How it works: vBird’s platform promises to be easy to use at any level. There’s a free version that gives birders access to unlimited virtual visits to locations within 50 miles of their [real world] home. “Travelling” beyond 50 miles begins to incur cost. To avoid vBirders instantaneously covering the entire world, users will need to ‘pay’ either money or time to access more distant locales. The user will have to either be suspended from vBirding for the time it would take in the real world to travel to a new location, or they can opt to pay for fast transit.

There’s also a training mode, where vBirders can choose any location in the world and bird for practice, receive feedback on their sightings and learn, all without sightings being ‘counted’ towards their vBird life lists. Finally tour organizers can still create custom trips and itineraries, where an expert guide can lead a group through a virtual location.

When asked why they had created this new app, eBird was a bit vague in their response. On the one hand, vBird promises to reduce much of the conflict in the birding community and might reduce the impact birders allegedly have on the planet. On the other hand, there’s little doubt that eBird has a financial stake in being first-in-line to profit from birders’ deep pockets and tech curiosity. The current eBird platform is free and funded through sponsored partnerships and grants. As it has grown, and become more valuable to birders, it is only natural that the temptation to cash in has become stronger. When asked whether diverting birders to a virtual world might not be at cross-purposes with the ongoing collection of sighting data in the real world, eBird executives had a surprising response: “Honestly, our dataset is large enough now with medium-quality data that we think the best improvement we can make is to push casual birders away from reality to allow scientists to focus on cleaning up the data from here on out.

Matt Bartels

Seattle, WA

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